Going from Great to Great...

I have written a lot about organisational culture across recent posts (specifically here) and so with the Rugby World Cup coming to an end yesterday with a scintillating performance from the New Zealand All Blacks I thought it pertinent to revisit culture and to look at what the rest of us can learn from the All Blacks - the most successful sporting team in history...


Humility & Openness

To be an All Black is to have earned the right to hold and wear the famous black jersey with the silver fern. Gilbert Enoka, the All Black's long standing psychology mentor recalls Richie McCaw receiving his first - "I can still remember Richie McCaw's first jersey, he spent about 45 seconds to a minute with his head just buried in it."

Those famous shirts are pulled on over their massive frames, the game faces switch on and it's time to do battle - more often than not resulting in an All Black win.

Back in the changing room after the match and it's time to debrief. The All Blacks choose an "off field captain" for each match, perhaps an injured player from the squad who couldn't take part. This captain leads the debrief in the style of a "whare", a Māori meeting house where every attendee is given equal status to voice their opinion, to share their reality. From the 100 cap skipper to the first cap newbie, from the head coach to the kit man everybody is heard and everybody's opinion is respected.

We see similar patterns in other successful organisations. Toyota, the worlds highest selling car company, have a policy in it's factories where any member of the team, whether CEO or cleaner, can stop the production line at any time if they see something which doesn't meet the strict quality code they work to. When it comes to upholding the values of the organisation, every team member has an equal stake and their opinion is equally valued.

Following the debrief, something wonderful takes place - the players sweep and clean the changing room, nobody is too big to do the small things that need to be done.

This level of humility from some of the biggest sports stars on the planet sets them apart from many other organisations and sports teams. One only has to hear stories of the England football team complaining that they had to walk 100 yards to get a massage at the last European Championships to see where the differences lie.

Wayne Smith, the All Blacks assistant coach says "Exceptional results demand exceptional circumstances". The All Black culture of humility and openness allows them to keep reinventing themselves in the face of new challenges, whilst never losing sight of their binding vision - to be the best. All team members are invited to offer solutions to the problems and challenges they face - a key advantage that allows them to build sustainable performance and above all to build character.


Character over talent

In 2004 the All Blacks management team and senior players came together to try to put in place the foundations for sustainable All Black success. The meeting lasted 3 days and resulted in the biggest cultural overhaul the All Blacks had seen since their inception. 

Their objective - "To create an environment that would stimulate the players and make them want to be part of it". Brian Lochore, the team manager, came up with 6 simple words that epitomise this ethos even today.

"Better people make better All Blacks"

By developing the overall character of each individual in the squad off the pitch and by taking a more holistic approach, each individual would, in theory, be in a better place to perform on the pitch.

As a team they identify the values and behaviours that are expected of an All Black, their "what it takes to win model" and cultivate those values and behaviours in every aspect of what they do. Every member of the team lives those values to a man, regardless of their status in the squad.

We see similar traits in other successful teams. In the UK Special Forces for example, new recruits to the unit are "stripped" of their rank - not because they are being punished or because they are new, but because everybody in the unit is an equal and has the right to question and the right to lead.

I have been immensely privileged to spend time working with a serving SAS training officer (again, a tremendously humble man) which game an insight into what the Special Forces are looking for when they select. Physical fitness is a given, every soldier who puts themselves forward for selection has the fitness of an elite athlete. What they are looking for is character -  the traits that will allow you, in the heat of battle, to look into the eyes of the man next to you and know he has your back as you have his. Character over talent.


Vision & Purpose - Aim Big

A common theme amongst highly successful organisations and teams is that they share a common vision of where they are going and they have a common purpose - they know why they are going there.

When they sat down to reinvent the All Blacks in that meeting in 2004, they didn't look to the next match of the next World Cup as a goal. They had bigger ambitions - "To play the best rugby the world has ever seen played." It is an almost impossible goal, but not completely. What it does do is set the teams sights on the bigger picture, beyond the next match or the next tournament. To answer the question of playing the best rugby is to continually strive to be better, to keep shifting the goal posts and to keep the drive and hunger. You can read more about the principle of setting ambitious goals by clicking here.

"Set goals so big that you feel uncomfortable telling small minded people"

It all points to the All Black legacy - "To leave the jersey in a better place"


"One captain, fifteen leaders"

If one thing has become apparent to me watching this year's Rugby World Cup it is that the All Blacks are leaders to a man. Whilst there is one nominated captain, every member of the team is a leader in their own right.

Former coach Graeme Henry - "The management always felt we had to transfer the leadership from the senior managers to the players... to play the game you need leadership on the field."

They set up leadership groups, with each having a specific responsibility; organising social events, leading on the field, inducting new All Blacks into the ethos and culture of the team. The leaders created new leaders, passing on their knowledge and experiences to their peers and each man empowering the next to continue that responsibility. Thus, the leadership legacy lives on - after this World Cup several senior All Blacks will retire from international rugby, but the youngsters gunning to take their place are no less ready to lead and continue the legacy onto future generations.

So What?

So what have we learned from the greatest sports team of all time?

Have a clear and communicated vision for where you want to get to. Develop clarity of purpose (your why) and have the team share in the passion of this purpose.  Empower your people to hear and to be heard, allow them to lead and to share leadership with others and to challenge the status quo - to continually ask the question - "What more can we do to be the best".

Above all, leave the jersey in a better place.

If you would like to learn more about the All Blacks and their how their performance culture can relate to the wider world I can highly recommend James Kerr's book  "Legacy"